How do U.S. Students Compare with their Peers around the World?

New international assessments of student performance in reading, math, and science provide both encouraging news about American students’ progress and some sobering cautionary notes.

The encouraging news is that U.S. fourth grade students have made significant progress in reading and mathematics in the last five years. In fact, our fourth graders now rank among the world’s leaders in reading literacy, and U.S. student achievement in math is now only surpassed, on average, in four countries.

EducationUnfortunately, these signs of real progress are counterbalanced by the fact that learning gains in fourth grade are not being sustained through eighth grade–where mathematics and science achievement failed to measurably improve between 2007 and 2011.

Still, the progress of fourth graders is especially noteworthy because we see it on rigorous, internationally-benchmarked assessments that students take without any special test preparation, the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study).

And unlike previous PISA assessments–the other major international assessment, which U.S. 15-year olds take–nine U.S. states voluntarily participated in TIMSS in 2011. For the first time, policymakers and parents now have data to gauge how academic performance in a significant subset of states compares with the U.S. as a whole, and with international competitors.

In 2006, the last time the PIRLS reading assessments were administered, a slew of countries and regions equaled or surpassed U.S. fourth graders in reading. Students in Hungary, Italy, Sweden, and the Canadian province of Alberta had higher levels of literacy than U.S. students.

Yet five years later, U.S. students are out-performing students in all of those nations and provinces. Education systems where students were on a par with U.S. fourth graders in reading literacy in 2006–Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, the Netherlands, and the Quebec region of Canada–have all been surpassed in the last five years by U.S. students.

Just as encouraging, students in highly-diverse states like Florida, Massachusetts, and North Carolina excelled internationally in a number of subject areas, suggesting that demography is not destiny in America’s schools.

State and local policy turn out to matter a great deal–and can have a powerful influence in advancing or slowing educational progress. It is state and local leaders and educators who are providing the commitment, courage, collaboration, and capacity at the state and local level to accelerate achievement. It’s no surprise that Florida, Massachusetts, and North Carolina all won competitive Race to the Top grants from the federal government.

Finally, the new TIMSS and PIRLS results put to rest, once and for all, the myth that America’s schools cannot be among the world’s top-performing school systems. In fact, eighth graders in Massachusetts performed below only one country in the world in science, Singapore.

In Florida, the math skills of students are on a par with those of their Finnish peers, who have a record of being among the top-performing students in the world. And the reading skills of Florida’s fourth-graders are on a par with those of the top-performing education systems in the world, too, including Finland and Singapore.

For all of the good news, the new TIMSS and PIRLS assessments also underscore the urgency of accelerating achievement in middle school and the pressing need to close large and persistent achievement gaps.

To take one example, in 2011, white eighth graders scored 83 points higher in science on TIMSS than black students and 60 points higher than Hispanic students.

To put those numbers in perspective, white eighth graders in the U.S. did about as well in science as Finland’s and Japan’s students, and were only surpassed by students in Singapore, Chinese Taipei, and Korea.

By contrast, Hispanic eight graders’ science scores were on a par with students from Norway and Kazakhstan. And black eighth graders’ science scores were roughly equivalent to those of students from Iran, Romania, and the United Arab Emirates.

If education is to fulfill its essential role in America as the great equalizer, big achievement gaps and opportunity gaps must close–and all students must receive a world-class education that genuinely prepares them for colleges and careers in the 21st century. In America, educational opportunity cannot depend on the color of your skin, your zip code, or the size of your bank account.

Given the vital role that science, technology, engineering, and math play in stimulating innovation and economic growth, it is particularly troubling that eighth-grade science achievement has barely budged in the U.S. since 2007. Students in Singapore and Korea are far more likely today to perform at advanced levels in science than U.S. students.

In a knowledge-based economy, education is the new key to individual success and national prosperity. The results of the TIMSS and PIRLS assessments show both that our students are on the path to progress–and that we still have a long journey to go before all of America’s children get an excellent education.

–Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.


  1. I’m hoping to see more improvement in our education system. As a volunteer teacher at Yale’s Science Education Outreach Program (SEOP), I’ve seen firsthand that there’s still much we can do to better educate the youth. I have high hopes that the US will succeed in this aspect. – Eric Schiffer

  2. Hello all,

    Firstly, I am appalled that they would use racial markers without any mention correlation to economic factors. If a certain percentage of black students are doing worse than a larger percentage of white students in any subject, it shouldn’t be a question of race, but of the economic and cultural factors. Any family living in poverty will have lower rates of parental involvement, and less enriching home environment, possible mental and physical stresses as a result of poverty which obviously would have an enormous impact on their performances in schools. I think that even the generalized understanding that generally southern states are lacking in academic achievement is tied into the fact that southern states have a higher percentage of families living below poverty lines. Cultural influences also dictate what teaching styles would be most effective. Lingual background is of even more importance.
    I personally believe that by marginalizing students racially is a waste of time and resources. As a parent who is bi-racial of children who are also bi-racial, I have had staff try to tell me what our “ethnicity” is based on how we look-which is not how that works anyways. I mentioned that because all staff have to pass the basic knowledge exam but this obviously is not an educated person behind the counter.
    Until we stop marginalizing students by meaningless factors, and focusing on those factors that do matter (i.e.) impoverished vs. not impoverished and/or English language limited-we will not move forward as a nation and achieve any real improvements.
    By saying “black” students we could be talking about an African descendent with a vast array of cultural contributions. (what country were born in-what cultural considerations make certain teaching styles ineffective-what is their first language etc.) The same can be said for white students. Marginalizing students by a vastly generalized term as “black, white, pacific islander etc. is misleading, and is an utter waste of time not to mention an archaic way of keeping America divided. This should not be tolerated on any level.
    Thanks for listening to my two cents-I am hoping for real change and improvement.

  3. As I’ve read about the TIMSS and PIRLS data, I’ve learned that the achievement gap has narrowed in recent years, in that our lower-achieving students have been gaining compared with their peers in other countries and with the slightly older members of their generation, but also because our higher achieving students have seen their scores drop compared with their older siblings. This latter effect cannot be the means by which we hope to narrow the achievement gap. 48% of Singaporeans and 47% of South Koreans did advanced work in 8th grade TIMSS math, while only 7% of Americans did the same, so even our highest achieving sub-groups are far behind in this criterion, which can be plausibly connected with future job creation.

    • Thank you for pointing this out. Unfortunately, the U.S. has many high achieving students sitting in classrooms marking time while they wait for their peers to catch up. There is a huge opportunity cost to not moving high achieving kids forward when they are ready to go academically.

      A push is going to have to come from the U.S. department of education because my local school systems won’t even admit this is a problem.

  4. I am writing concerning what a local high school district is doing. To save money, the School Board approved changes to save $1.5 million by eliminating 17 staff members. Twelve members from the high school and five from the middle school. The students will also will be required to have fewer credits to graduate from high school. The change is from 23 to 21.5. This chang could put these students further behind others in some areas.

  5. If we look at this issue of achievement gap using the scientific method to identify root causes and offer solutions, we must first identify all the variables that influence achievement, in other words identify the scope of the problem. Possibly, the teacher is the only variable government believes it can control, but the teacher is not the only influence contributing to student achievement.
    While this forum is not the place for a detailed discussion regarding these variables, governments need to have a serious discussion of all the variables defining the scope of the issue. For example, we know that a child’s verbal ability at the young age of two is highly influenced by the use of language at home and can predict school achievement. Not talking about such variables and what can be done about them is irresponsible. Most of the teachers of tomorrow will be female and very young as many seasoned teachers are retiring with few males in the pipeline. Speaking from a neurological perspective, our frontal lobe (governs decision making) is not formed until age 25, therefore expecting young teachers to solve many of the contributing social issues as well as teach may not be entirely rooted in logic. Politics must acknowledge the whole scope of the issue. Teaching is only a portion of the scope of this issue regarding the achievement gap.

    • I agree wholeheartedly. I mentioned this also in my post. The whole scope of the issue can not be summed up by saying each group of students (based on race) are achieving different goals because race should no longer a factor in our society, and has no bearing on the first language of the student etc. Even worse, I don’t see any data on the school districts that have higher teacher to student ratios, and/or lack of resources.

  6. This underscores that middle and junior high schools need more rigor. On a personal level, I am happy with math, which is often grouped. I find that junior high language arts often lacks rigor.

    I’d like to see the nation make a significant investment in teaching junior high language arts teachers more about their subject matter so they can better teach students.

    • I agree that more rigor is needed, but we also need to bring parents closer to the teaching. Without parent involvement more rigor will not work.

      • The big problem is that parent involvement to parents and administrators often means different things. School leaders like rah rah parents. These parents aren’t going to make much of a difference. Further, if their students are getting good grades, a lot of parents won’t notice there’s a problem with rigor and pacing. I’d be happy to be more involved as a parent; however, such involvement becomes fruitless when schools won’t make changes. (And I state this as a parent who has met with administrators to request more rigor (and faster pacing) and volunteered in my children’s school.) Private schools seem a little more receptive to parent involvement that is change oriented because they often need their customers to survive. Public schools often don’t change because their audience is captive (especially if the audience is low income).

  7. I like the way you bread down the states. I always tell everyone that the numbers are not right when you compare the U.S. as a whole.

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